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Lessons from Threadless: Why building online community can unlock e-commerce success

(Posted on Feb 23, 2014 at 01:50PM )
The success of companies who have found the value of having an onsite community is all around us. It lets you connect and stay close to your customers and employees in ways that cannot be accomplished by any other means.

More and more companies are creating onsite social communities for their customers in which to interact. Companies can read the needs and concerns of their customers in new ways and can benefit from the relevant content being generated in the community via comments and articles that can be integrated into their Digital marketing initiatives.

It shows that you are customer and employee centric and can produce a culture of brand ambassadors that can be broadcast across the internet and your social channels to greatly increase traffic to your site by people who will already have confidence in you as a company who is dedicated to serving its customers, employees and community.

These communities provide for limitless marketing opportunities at a fraction of the cost of any other form of marketing.

 Below Caitlin Fitzsimmons social media editor for BRW shares another success story that an onsite social community has brought to this ecommerce company.  However, onsite communities can be customized to any company in any industry to provide the same kind of results.

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Threadless is a T-shirt company with a twist: artists submit designs, Threadless members vote on their favourites, the winners get paid and the T-shirts are produced and sold online.
Chicago-based Threadless started in 2000 with $1000 and is now widely estimated to have more than $30 million in revenue.

The intriguing thing about the business is how it was borne out of the idea of an online community of artists and designers. Artists submit designs, Threadless members vote on their favourites, the winners get paid and the T-shirts are produced and sold through the shop at It is worth reading this profile of Threadless (and the reader comments) in Chicago Magazine.

Threadless has more than 2 million members and a social presence that includes more than 800,000 fans on Facebook and 2.2 million Twitter followers. Chief marketing officer Todd Lido is giving a keynote at the E-commerce Conference & Expo in Melbourne from March 26-27 on the company’s strategy for community building and engagement.

BRW: What was the initial idea behind Threadless and how did it all start?
Picture Todd Lido: The idea for Threadless began when CEO and founder Jake Nickell began hosting T-shirt design challenges on a design forum. Jake saw how much everyone was enjoying these challenges, and realised it could be a great model to source incredible artwork for T-shirts.

BRW: How has Threadless grown and changed since then?

Lido: Over a decade later, the community continues to grow. Artists from all over the world submit on Threadless. We received submissions from artists in 71 different countries last month.

One of the great things about the community-based design model is there is no singular Threadless look or design sense. That said, it’s been interesting to see the aesthetics of what the community produces and which products are popular evolve over time.

We continue evolving the model to make it work better, both for Threadless as a business and for the artists who participate. We want to make sure Threadless stays the best platform in the world for artists to come together, share and monetise their work.

BRW: How is community and social marketing baked into what you do?

Lido: At its core, Threadless is a platform for connecting artists. So a community-centric approach to communication is very natural for us. We aim to inspire creativity and individuality and keep Threadless fun. It’s partly about managing a community of artists – engaging them in design submissions through themed design challenges, encouraging constructive feedback and collaboration and celebrating success in the community. And it’s partly about making a meaningful connection between artists and the rest of the community that supports them. We really want to keep a focus on the idea that when you buy from Threadless, you are supporting independent artists.

BRW: What have you learned about social marketing that might be useful for other companies?

Lido: Think about what makes your offering unique and what resonates most with the audience. Where is the emotional connection that’s going to make the audience want to share your content? Strive to mirror the tone of your communications with the conversations that are happening within your community. I’m sure that some marketers, especially in the business-to-business space, might think that doesn’t apply, but keep in mind at the end of the day your goal is to connect with people too. I definitely encourage as much playful experimentation with different types of content as possible. And pay attention to your social metrics while you experiment. You might be surprised by the results.

BRW: What have you done well and what would you do differently if you had your time over?

Lido: I’m most proud of the work we’ve done celebrating artists and telling the stories of the real people who make Threadless what it is. (Some great examples can be found here.)

I’m always dissatisfied when we do anything that doesn’t reinforce the narrative of community-based design. If we have a promotion which is only about “buy these discounted tees”, then it could be a promo for any retailer. If what we are talking about doesn’t represent the community behind Threadless, we might as well have stayed home that day.

BRW: What are some of the key things you plan to cover in your conference presentation?

Lido: I’m really looking forward to it! I actually think I’m going to get more out of the experience than anyone. I’m looking forward to telling the Threadless story and relating ideas for sustainable community engagement. Threadless certainly has a unique story, but there’s a lot to draw from which is relevant to almost any organisation seeking to grow its online community.

I’ll talk a little about our core mission, the business model and culture and how they inform everything else we do. I will walk through examples of how community participation informs business decisions. I plan on going into detail about our content marketing strategy and how we pull stories out of our community. There will be relatable examples of what has worked for us on a channel and campaign level, especially social media examples. And I will also talk about the balancing act of driving marketing strategy with both community and e-commerce goals, and how these don’t have to be at odds with each other.

By Caitlin Fitzsimmons